(Photo by Julie Leopo/EdSource)

The College Board recently announced changes to a new college admissions tool to measure information about a freshman applicant’s high school and neighborhood, doing away with plans to create a single “adversity score” from 1 to 100 for each student.

Responding largely to criticisms that one score can’t reflect the hardships a student has had to overcome, the College Board, which administers the SAT, will be giving college admissions offices data on six factors about the applicant’s neighborhood and high school: college attendance rates, household structure, median family income, housing stability, education levels and crime.

The revised index, called “Landscape,” is being tested at a small number of colleges across the United States, including some in California. The tool will measure each of the six factors twice, once for the student’s high school and once for the student’s neighborhood. The six indicators will then be averaged, giving admissions officers a “Neighborhood Average” and a “High School Average,” each on a scale of 1 to 100, with a higher number representing a higher likelihood of challenges.

Beginning in the 2020-21 school year, the College Board will also give students access to the information about their neighborhoods and high schools.

College Board CEO David Coleman said the new score will more accurately capture a student’s background. “We’re not going to try to sum it up in a single score. We’re going to try to provide general information about high schools and neighborhoods. Our real aim here is just consistent background information.”

It is unclear which of California’s public colleges and universities will use the new index to decide freshman admissions. EdSource has contacted the nine University of California undergraduate campuses to determine whether they are planning to use the index. Officials at UC Irvine and UC Berkeley said the university is participating in the pilot for the new score, but is still learning how it works.

Toni Molle, a spokeswoman for the 23-campus California State University system, said CSU does not have plans to use the tool.

In addition to the six factors, the reformed tool will also include basic data about the applicant’s high school, such as the senior class size and the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, as well as the applicant’s SAT score in comparison to the scores of other students at the high school.

The changes to the index come after some critics questioned whether the adversity score would adequately measure adversity and noted that an individual student’s experiences may not be reflected in the score.

“It was very important that we get away from the distraction that there was some single number we were trying to use to summarize a student’s adversity with. And so we abandoned that. It was confusing and it was not a good idea. And we really heard that,” Coleman said.

The previous version of the index, called the “Environmental Context Dashboard,”considered 31 socio-economic factors about a student’s neighborhood and high school and created a single 1 to 100 score for each student.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, a standardized test watchdog group critical of the SAT and ACT, said the changes will make the tool “less worse” but added that it will still be “misleading” for admissions officers to consider data about a student’s neighborhood or school, even if that data is never mixed.

“It’s good that the College Board listened to the feedback and recognized that attaching a single number to each individual was misleading. However, the revised version doesn’t add anything that was not previously available to college admissions offices from high school profiles or census block data. It still fails to tell you much about the individual applicant,” he said.

“A kid who grows up in an affluent neighborhood may still have overcome very serious adversity. And similarly a kid in a poor area may have had lots of opportunities. … So you’re trying to apply data derived from averages to individuals, human beings, which can lead to erroneous decision-making. Far better for admissions officers to look at individuals,” Schaeffer added.

Among the participating colleges already using the tool is Pomona College, a private liberal arts college in Claremont.

Adam Sapp, the admissions director at the college, said he thinks the changes will be helpful to admissions officers.

“Combining it into a single score I actually think was probably confusing. And I think breaking it out and saying here’s the school, here’s the community, I think that’s helpful,” Sapp said. “Because some students go to school in their neighborhood, other students don’t go to school in the neighborhood, and really understanding the differences between where students live, and where students are educated, that is helpful.”

Sapp also noted that while Pomona uses the index, the index does not drive decision-making in admissions.

“We ask students to send us a lot of information. We ask schools to send us a lot of information. All of that is still going to be the most central piece of the application. So to have a tool that comes in and kind of layers on top of that, that is better than it was before, I mean, I’m all for it,” he said.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Michael Burke